Panetta’s Cam Ranh Bay visit shows growing U.S.-Vietnam ties
CAM RANH BAY, Vietnam, June 3, 2012 – Senior U.S. officials were once a familiar sight at this deep-water port on the South China Sea. But that was during the Vietnam War, which is why Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to an American ship moored in the harbor here is historic.
Panetta touched on history, but spoke of the future to the men and women of the USNS Richard Byrd – a Military Sealift Command supply ship. He spoke of the Vietnam War and the symbolism of the large gray supply ship moored in the harbor today.
On Memorial Day, Panetta spoke at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington to mark the 50th anniversary of the war. Etched in granite on the memorial are the names of all the Americans who died in the war.
Many of those Americans memorialized in the Wall came through Can Ranh Bay. It was a major port, major airfield and major logistics point for American forces during the war.
“Today I stand on a U.S. ship in Cam Ranh Bay to recognize the 17th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam,” he said.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Vietnam was a bloody country. Millions of Americans service members served in Vietnam-- 58,282, died and hundreds of thousands were wounded. The Vietnamese military also took horrendous casualties, and Vietnamese civilians often also paid the price of war.
The war ended in 1975, and 20 years later the United States and Vietnam normalized relations between the countries.
“I’m here to take stock of the partnership we are developing with Vietnam,” Panetta told the civilian mariners and sailors of the Byrd.
Since the normalization, the U.S. and Vietnamese militaries have worked to build military-to-military relations. Last year, U.S. and Vietnamese defense officials signed a memorandum of understanding designed to bring the two militaries closer together.
“We’ve come a long way,” Panetta said.
The way American and Vietnamese defense officials have been working together shows the two countries “have a complicated relationship, but we are not bound by that history,” the secretary said. “We want to explore ways that we can expand that relationship.”
The United States wants to expand the relationship in a number of areas, Panetta said. The secretary would like to see growth in high-level exchanges, in the maritime area, in search and rescue, in humanitarian aid and disaster relief and in peacekeeping operations.
“In particular we want to work with Vietnam on critical maritime issues including a code of conduct focusing on the South China Sea, and also working to improve freedom of navigation in our oceans,” he said.
Access for U.S. supply ships to Cam Ranh Bay and its repair facilities is important not only for logistical reasons but for its political implications. This will allow the United States to achieve its objectives in the Asia-Pacific and to take the relationship with Vietnam to the next level, Panetta said.
The secretary made a special mention of Vietnam’s longstanding assistance in identifying and locating the remains of our fallen service members and those Americans missing in action in Vietnam. “This sacred mission will continue until all missing troops are accounted for,” he said. “We stand by our pledge that we leave no one behind.”
The secretary spoke on the flight deck of the Byrd. The equatorial sun beat down on the deck, and behind him rose Vietnam’s jagged, rocky mountains. Immediately behind him flew the U.S. flag on the fantail of the ship. Panetta served as an Army lieutenant in the early 1960s. The names of some of his classmates, friends, fellow soldiers are engraved in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“We all recall that a great deal of blood was spilled in the war on all sides – by Americans and by Vietnamese,” he said. “A lot of questions were raised on all sides over why the war was fought.
“But if out of all that sacrifice we can build a strong partnership between our countries that looks to the future, then perhaps can we not only begin to heal the wounds of the past, but we can build a better future for all our people in the Asia-Pacific region.”